The French master receives serviceable though not sterling biographical treatment from a translator of Flaubert’s works for Penguin Classics.
Everything about Gustave Flaubert (1821–80) was outsized: roaring voice, whoring, debts, and, most important, literary ambitions. The latter were nourished secretly while he was an indifferent law student (a period likely ended by an epileptic attack), then brought to fruition in a small but painstakingly written corpus of four novels, three short stories, and an abortive attempt at a play. The son and brother of surgeons, he used his pen like a scalpel to anatomize the stultifying provincial bourgeoisie in his masterpiece, Madame Bovary. (Ironically, he avoided Parisian mistress Louise Colet by pleading the need to stay in the provinces to care for his widowed mother and orphaned niece, admitting that he was temperamentally incapable of committing to anything but intellectual freedom.) While not as spectacularly self-destructive as other writers, Flaubert offers a dazzling prospect for a literary biographer: complex, divided personality; battles against epilepsy and syphilis, censorship, penury, and self-doubt; and a vast archive of Waspish, self-pitying, often erotic letters. Wall (Univ. of York) doesn’t drop his opportunity, but he doesn’t exploit its grand possibilities. To his credit, the biographer sometimes offers piercing insights into Flaubert’s methods and themes, noting, for instance, that Madame Bovary represented a “dynamic form of self-multiplication” in which the author’s personality permeated all of his characters. But he does not deal as trenchantly as Herbert Lottman’s Flaubert (1989) with the novelist’s friendships with Turgenev, Maupassant, George Sand, boon-companion Louis Bouilhet, and editor Maxime du Camp. Moreover, Wall could have taken a cue from Flaubert’s restrained style to prune his own melodramatic excess (the affair with Colet was “an ideally imaginative, superstitious, ceremonious, frustrated love”).
Like so much of its subject’s work, a chronicle of the progression from youthful romanticism to middle-aged disillusionment, but narrated without Flaubert’s style and bent for psychological realism. (30 b&w illustrations)